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There's an essay in the Graun about the fall from grace of the idea of kindness. Far from being a virtue to be embraced, conspicuously kind behaviour is now seen as a bad thing; it either signifies that the individual is a loser of low status (and best avoided; loserdom's contagious, you know, and you don't want to associate with losers), or up to something predatory or dishonest. Even if they're not, they're being kind for some sort of psychological payoff, and thus are really just as selfish and corrupt as the rest of us grasping predators in the urban jungle:
Kindness - not sexuality, not violence, not money - has become our forbidden pleasure. In one sense kindness is always hazardous because it is based on a susceptibility to others, a capacity to identify with their pleasures and sufferings. Putting oneself in someone else's shoes, as the saying goes, can be very uncomfortable. But if the pleasures of kindness - like all the greatest human pleasures - are inherently perilous, they are none the less some of the most satisfying we possess.
All compassion is self-pity, DH Lawrence remarked, and this usefully formulates the widespread modern suspicion of kindness: that it is either a higher form of selfishness (the kind that is morally triumphant and secretly exploitative) or the lowest form of weakness (kindness is the way the weak control the strong, the kind are kind only because they haven't got the guts to be anything else). If we think of humans as essentially competitive, and therefore triumphalist by inclination, as we are encouraged to do, then kindness looks distinctly old-fashioned, indeed nostalgic, a vestige from a time when we could recognise ourselves in each other, and feel sympathetic because of our kindness - if such a time ever existed. And what, after all, can kindness help us win, except moral approval; or possibly not even that, in a society where "respect" for personal status has become a leading value.
Margaret Thatcher's 1979 electoral victory marked the defeat in Britain of the Beveridge/Tawney/Titmuss vision of a kindly society, while the rise of Reaganism in 80s America saw a similar erosion of welfare values there. Kindness was downgraded into a minority motivation, suitable only for parents (especially mothers), "care professionals" and assorted sandal-wearing do-gooders. The "caring, sharing" 90s proclaimed a return to community values, but this proved to be rhetorical flimflam as Thatcher and Reagan's children came of age, steeped in free-market ideology and with barely a folk memory of the mid-century welfare vision. With the 1997 triumph of New Labour in Britain, and George W Bush's election to the American presidency in 2000, competitive individualism became the ruling consensus. The taboo surrounding "dependency" became even stronger, as politicians, employers and a motley array of well-fed moralists harangued the poor and vulnerable on the virtues of self-reliance. Tony Blair called for "compassion with a hard edge" to replace the softening variety advocated by his predecessors. "The new welfare state must encourage work, not dependency," he declared, as a plague of cost-cutting managers chomped away at Britain's social services.
So kindness is not just camouflaged egoism. To this old suspicion, modern post-Freudian society has added two more: that kindness is a disguised form of sexuality, and that kindness is a disguised form of aggression - both of which again reduce kindness to a covert selfishness. Insofar as kindness is a sexual act it is seen as a seduction (I am being very nice to you so I can get to have sex and/or babies), or as a defence against the sexual event (I'll be so kind to you that you will forget about sex and we can do something else together), or as a way of repairing the supposed damage done by sex (I'll be nice to you to make up for all my harmful desires). Insofar as kindness is an aggressive act it is seen as a placation (I feel so aggressive towards you that I can only protect both of us by being very kind), or a refuge (my kindness will keep you at arm's length). "One can always, for safety, be kind," as Maggie Verver says to her father in Henry James's The Golden Bowl.Of course, kindness is socially corrosive as it makes people less self-reliant and prevents the weak from being weeded out as Nature intended; to wit, there are formal systems for discouraging, or even punishing, acts of kindness, as described in the MetaFilter thread; for example, the old practice of passing unwanted all-day rail tickets on to strangers after using them is now a prosecutable offence in much of the UK. (Then again, in a world where business models are sacrosanct, this is just as criminal an act of theft as copying a MP3 for a friend or getting up during the ad break on TV.) It's as if the philosophy of Ayn Rand has assimilated itself into the unwritten cultural assumptions of society.
Meanwhile, if you encounter what looks like unwarranted kindness or friendliness from a stranger in a big city, your first reaction is wondering whether they're trying to con or scam you in some fashion. Though I suspect this is not an invention of Reaganism-Thatcherism or even of Ayn Rand, but just the way that things have been in big cities full of strangers since time immemorial. While the article makes some interesting points about the social consequences of the drive for free-market competitiveness as the primary principle of social organisation, of social planning on the assumption of individuals as gold-seeking individualists, the idea that there ever was a glden age of widespread kindness does seem somewhat implausible. (A time of widespread hypocritical lip service to the virtue of kindness seems more plausible.)
One of the most striking differences between European and Asian societies is the question of individualism versus collectivism. This arguably goes beyond the question of individual rights and social obligations, and into the way people think about entities versus systems:
There is no better way to shatter someone's "we are all the same" illusion than to show pictures of a monkey, a panda and a banana to someone from Japan and someone from Britain. Ask them which two images go together. Chances are, the Japanese will pick the monkey and the banana, because they have a functional relationship: the former eats the latter. The Brit will select the panda and the monkey, because they are both mammals. As Richard Nisbett of the University of Michigan described in his 2003 book, "The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why," Westerners typically see classifications where Asians see relationships. He means "see" literally. When students in one study looked at tanks holding a large fish, a bunch of small fry and the usual aquarium plants and rocks, the Japanese later said they'd seen lots of background elements; the Americans saw the big fish.Now a new hypothesis from evolutionary psychology suggests that these cognitive traits could have been the result of natural selection driven by disease-causing microbes, i.e., in pathogen-rich environments, tendencies towards collectivism were adaptive (i.e., you were more likely to survive), whereas where there were fewer pathogens, populations had the luxury of evolving more ruggedly individualistic tendencies:
A reluctance to interact with strangers can protect against pathogens because strangers are more likely to carry strange microbes that the group lacks immunity to, says Mark Schaller of the University of British Columbia; xenophobia keeps away strangers and their strange bugs. Respect for traditions also works: ways of preparing food (using hot pepper, say, which kills microbes), rules about hygiene and laws about marriage (wed only in-group members, whose microbes you're probably immune to) likely arose to keep pathogens at bay. "Conformity helps maintain these buffers against disease," says Corey Fincher of the University of New Mexico; mavericks are dangerous. In places with a high prevalence of pathogens, such cultural traits—which happen to be the hallmarks of societies that value the group over the individual—would be adaptive. Put another way, societies that arose in pathogen-rife regions and did not have such traits would be wiped out by disease. Societies that did have them would survive.
When the scientists examined how closely collectivism tracked the prevalence of pathogens, they found a strong correlation, they will report in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. In general, tropical regions have more pathogens, and societies there tend to be more group-oriented than those at higher latitudes. Ecuador, Panama, Pakistan, India, China and Japan are the world's most group-first societies—and historically have had the highest prevalence of natural pathogens due to their climate and topography. The most individualistic are in Northern Europe and the United States, where there have historically been fewer native pathogens. For years scientists have scratched their heads over why collectivism declines with distance from the equator, and why living in colder regions should promote individualism (you'd think polar people would want to huddle together more). The answer seems to be that equatorial regions breed more pathogens.The research acknowledges that nurture and culture play a significant role (i.e., Asian immigrants in America soon become as individualistic as other members of their adoptive society), so any genetic bias may be a subtle one. Though when a number of individuals form a civilisation, it may only take a slight cognitive bias to change the basic cultural assumptions that evolve.
On the other hand, given that the research is of American and Canadian (i.e., Western) origin, perhaps it rests on a western, individualist cultural bias. Which doesn't necessarily invalidate it, though it makes one wonder how a Japanese or Chinese evolutionary psychologist would theorise the origins of the differences between individualist and collectivist societies.
The Guardian has an excerpt from a recent book by Barbara Ehrenreich, which postulates that the rise of subjective individual self-awareness and the decline of the collective celebrations common in mediæval times may have touched off an epidemic of depression we've been living in ever since:
And very likely the phenomena of this early "epidemic of depression" and the suppression of communal rituals and festivities are entangled in various ways. It could be, for example, that, as a result of their illness, depressed individuals lost their taste for communal festivities and even came to view them with revulsion. But there are other possibilities. First, that both the rise of depression and the decline of festivities are symptomatic of some deeper, underlying psychological change, which began about 400 years ago and persists, in some form, in our own time. The second, more intriguing possibility is that the disappearance of traditional festivities was itself a factor contributing to depression.
One approaches the subject of "deeper, underlying psychological change" with some trepidation, but fortunately, in this case, many respected scholars have already visited this difficult terrain. "Historians of European culture are in substantial agreement," Lionel Trilling wrote in 1972, "that in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, something like a mutation in human nature took place." This change has been called the rise of subjectivity or the discovery of the inner self and since it can be assumed that all people, in all historical periods, have some sense of selfhood and capacity for subjective reflection, we are really talking about an intensification, and a fairly drastic one, of the universal human capacity to face the world as an autonomous "I", separate from, and largely distrustful of, "them".
But the new kind of personality that arose in 16th- and 17th-century Europe was by no means as autonomous and self-defining as claimed. For far from being detached from the immediate human environment, the newly self-centered individual is continually preoccupied with judging the expectations of others and his or her own success in meeting them: "How am I doing?" this supposedly autonomous "self" wants to know. "What kind of an impression am I making?"If this hypothesis is correct, then the epidemic of depression and mental illness that began in the 1600s (which Ehrenreich provides supporting evidence for, in historical records) is a side-effect of a step in the evolution of human psychology that began at around that time, with the pressures of communication, trade and social organisation dragging the human mind kicking and screaming from a sleepy collective life to a more dynamic way of living. In this case, a lot of the anxiety, angst and low-level distress people feel routinely is not a result of human nature, but rather human nature reacting against "unnatural" circumstances. Small wonder that many have sought relief in an annihilation of the self, from hippie communes to Communist utopias, from meditation to severe religious submission, from the Arcadian pastoral utopias throughout art (Tolkien, William Morris and the Arcade Fire to name three examples off the top of my head) to the transcendental nihilism of drugs (take, for example, Lou Reed wishing he had been born "a thousand years ago" in Heroin).
So where does that leave us? Perhaps, given enough time (hundreds if not thousands of years), human psychology will evolve into depression-resistant directions, assuming that some kind of technological catastrophe doesn't cut the process short. Genetic evolution is slow, but cultural evolution is faster, and it could be argued that our technologies and cultural institutions are part of the "extended phenotype" of humanity; that the invention of antidepressant drugs is an adaptation to these changes in our environment. It's a crude, reactionary adaptation, merely treating the symptoms; though there is hope on the horizon. There has recently been a lot of focus on the study of the psychology of happiness, and what factors make for environments conducive to sustainable happiness. With any luck, this will lead to improvements in areas from urban planning to social policy to economics.
Then again, if the hypothesis is true, would it be possible to somehow get the best of both worlds? Could one have the happy, fulfilling collective connectedness people (allegedly) had before the 16th century, whilst retaining the gains made since then? Or is the very presence of subjective thought, the demarcation between the self and the collective, poisonous?
(On the other hand, L. Ron Hubbard claims that depression comes from humanity's early ancestor, the clam, and the tension between the desire to open and close its hinge.)
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